The great lesson from the true mystics, from the Zen Monks, and now also from the Humanistic and Transpersonal psychologists—that the sacred is in the ordinary, that it is to be found in one's daily life, in one's neighbors, friends, and family, in one's back yard, and that travel may be a flight from confronting the sacred—this lesson can be easily lost. To be looking elsewhere for miracles is to me a sure sign of ignorance that everything is miraculous.
~ Abraham Maslow
I am a psychologist and mindfulness teacher in the bay area and have studied and practiced the art of cultivating sacred moments in daily life. I came to this through my own journey of realizing that I was so bombarded by so much stimulation and information and felt a pull to automatically rehash the past or spin our wheels over the future that I felt I was missing the life that was in front of me, in the here and now. I grew up with a rabbinic father who would come home after being with various people on their death beds and he would share with me their thoughts. "If I just had it to do over, I wouldn't have spent so much time in the office, I would have been more present with the people I loved." I felt there was a sacredness or preciousness to life that I wasn't paying attention to as much as I wanted. It's difficult to recognize the preciousness of life when we're not attending to it. I had to look at my life. Not surprisingly, I noticed that our media, which has become eye candy to many, more often than not draws us into negative content that fills our minds. In my research on cultivating sacred moments in daily life, I found that there is a rising amount of stress in western society that appears to be due to the increasing complexity of responsibilities and events (i.e., 9/11).
Well, stress is a precursor to anxiety, and over 19 million Americans are afflicted with some type of anxiety disorder today. Furthermore, disorders such as anxiety critically impact quality of life and well-being. Although current research is working towards discovering factors that influence well-being, there is still a pattern of sidestepping the qualities of sacred moments in reference to mental health and well-being. With the field's persistent emphasis on techniques toward mental health that do not explicitly involve the sacred and the transcendent, it seems critical to continue to tap this area for its value to our own lives. To back this up the need for this in our society, an electronic search of Psychological Abstracts in psychology's last 100 years reveals a 14 to one ratio of psychological articles about negative emotions versus positive emotions. The imbalance in research of negative versus positive makes it ever more important to ask the question: what does it mean to live the good life? The good news: there is resurgence in the world of focusing on this very question!
Religious scholars to philosophers to modern day psychologists have pondered the perennial question of what it means to live well. In the past few decades there has been a considerable surge in interest and research on the phenomena of well-being. The academics have distilled two different types of well-being through the years, subjective well-being (SWB) or happiness and psychological well-being (PWB) or existential well-being that have emerged as the most prominent concepts in mainstream psychological research. SWB focuses more on positive/negative emotion and life satisfaction while PWB is concerned with meaning, purpose, and existential issues. Through empirically validated studies, research in each field has created a way to measure these constructs of well-being.
Empirical research suggests that, in considering an approach to pursuing a lifestyle conducive to good overall health and well-being, an important factor is cultivating a sense of sacredness in one's life. Recent studies show a high positive connection between the way we think and feel in relation to the sacred and well-being. Some studies suggest that connecting with the transcendent and experiencing a transcendent sense of self foster well-being. Other studies find that well-being is positively correlated with a sense of support from the transcendent in areas such as marriage, parenting, healthy family relationships, and sustaining physical health. Robert Emmons and Michael McCullough applied a new intervention that focuses on fostering gratitude and linked it to life satisfaction and a sense of purpose in life. Furthermore, our thoughts and emotions associated with the sacred have positive connections among themselves, implying that when experiencing one aspect, others may be felt at the same time. These studies underscore the concept that there is a significant positive connection between what are considered sacred components of life and well-being and a negative connection to stress. It can therefore be argued that an intervention cultivating these sacred components may increase well-being and reduce stress.
Sacred Qualities and Sacred Moments
A large body of theory has described a broad spectrum of experiences that may or may not be considered a sacred moment. The key aspect of a sacred moment, as defined and described in the study that I did, is that it is a moment in time that is imbued with sacred qualities. What are sacred qualities? Good question. For the purposes of this study, sacred qualities were defined as having two components: (a) they inherently possess spiritual qualities as defined by Lynn Underwood and the World Health Organization, such as gratefulness, feeling of connection with and support from the transcendent, sweet-sadness, awe, compassion, and/or a deep sense of inner peace, and (b) they are imbued with descriptive qualities such as precious, dear, blessed, cherished, and/or holy. Consequently, for the purposes of this study, sacred moments are defined as day-to-day personal moments that are imbued with sacred qualities, which seem like time-outs from daily busy-ness, where a sense of stillness arises or occurs and where concerns of the every day just seem to evaporate. In other words, in order to experience a sacred moment, the moment needs to be imbued by the individual with these sacred qualities. Although extraordinary mystical experiences could also be considered sacred moments, the focus of this research was on those more ordinary day-to-day experiences. So how do we cultivate them?
A core aspect in cultivating these moments is being able to attend to the present moment. Different methods have been developed over the last decade to help the individual control attention, including; hypnosis, biofeedback, and gestalt therapy. However, mindfulness seems to be the most popular and easily accessible path to becoming present in the moment. Mindfulness has been defined as a method of focusing attention on the present as it occurs. Learning how to train the mind and body to be in the present moment is critical to being aware of what is sacred in the moment. Find an object that has special meaning to you. This could be tangible or intangible. One participant in my study found a plant, another used clouds, another used a family heirloom, and yet another thought of a memory. Take a few moments to become present and then slightly shift your attention to this sacred or precious object and begin to intentionally attend to it slightly slower than usual. Notice how it looks, feels, sounds, smells, and if it's food, tastes! Then notice the thoughts and emotions that arise, acknowledge that they are there, and let them be. It is always good to be guided in a practice, but this one you could also experiment with on your own.
What I found after studying 73 people around the country was that they were able to cultivate these moments for five minutes a day for five days a week for three weeks and it had a significant effect on their stress levels and well-being. It suggested that cultivating sacred moments could be used as a therapeutic intervention in our lives. One man explained how, through this process, he was able to experience sacred moments for the first time:
[I experienced sacred moments] through this process. I never noticed any spiritual moments before this…[the words]unique, holy and worthy of reverence was not within the scope of my intellectual reaction of things. To be able to pray was something that I was not willing to [do].
Because of the groundbreaking nature of weaving spirituality into psychology, this study was then published in the Journal of Clinical Psychology.
Psychology is becoming more interested in those moments that transcend and include the ego, are non-ordinary, and are personal. Arthur Hastings, a leading Transpersonal Psychologist points out:
These experiences are usually defined as going beyond the ordinary sense of identity or personality to encompass wider dimensions of the psyche and the cosmos. This can include experiences of intense love, enhanced perception, a sense of merging into a more comprehensive identity, spiritual and religious experiences, psychic awareness. . . . Other definitions suggest that transpersonal means optimal health and well-being, holistic development of the self and the psychology of transformation.
Both sacred moments and well-being are suggested in Hasting's description of transpersonal psychology. A study of sacred moments could aspire to bring transpersonal psychology out into the mainstream of psychology and bring mainstream thought into the transpersonal realm.
Elisha Goldstein, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist and conducts a private practice in West Los Angeles. He is co-author of A Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Workbook (New Harbinger, February 2010). Visit his mindfulness and psychotherapy blog on PsychCentral.com.